Experience stunning ocean views and see the Tule elk herd on a classic Point Reyes hike
Located only an hour’s drive north from downtown San Francisco, pastoral Point Reyes National Seashore seems a world away from the noise and traffic of the city. The Seashore preserves most of the Point Reyes Peninsula, a unique geographical feature of the northern California coastline. Established in 1962, Point Reyes was saved from development plans and today remains in much the same rural condition as it was in the mid-Nineteenth Century when it was used primarily for dairy farming. Today, the few remaining dairy operations have switched from making butter to producing the world-renowned Point Reyes Blue Cheese.
Although a limited number of paved roads access many of the Seashore’s primary attractions, the majority of the park remains roadless, accessible only by an extensive network of hiking trails. Unlike most national parks, Point Reyes has no overnight car camping facilities, and camping in the backcountry is limited to four designated camping sites. Fortunately, all of the park’s numerous hiking attractions can be reached in a dayhike.
Located in the far northern corner of the Seashore, the Tomales Point Trail is one of the most spectacular hikes in the park. Beginning at the historic Pierce Point Ranch, the trail follows an abandoned ranch access road along the length of Tomales Point. While the maintained portion of the trail ends not far beyond the site of Lower Pierce Point Ranch, it is possible to follow a use trail that continues on to the very tip of the peninsula at Tomales Bluff. At 9.4 miles round trip, the hike is one of the longer day hikes in the park. However, the terrain is very gentle, with only slight ups and downs and no major climbs along the route. The Tomales Point Trail also represents one of the premier wildlife viewing opportunities at Point Reyes, passing through the park’s Tule Elk Reserve, where a herd of approximately 450 tule elk thrives after being reintroduced in 1978.
Distance: 9.4 miles round trip.
Elevation gain/loss: +1350’ gain/-1350’ loss.
Hiking time: 5-6 hours.
Permits and fees: None. Permits are not required for day hikes. Additionally, Point Reyes National Seashore currently does not charge an entrance fee.
Maps: Point Reyes National Seashore and West Marin Parklands: National Seashore and West Marin Parklands, Recreation Map, by Wilderness Press is a good, all-around map of the Seashore, and is detailed enough for hiking. This hike is also covered by the Tomales 7.5′ USGS topographic map. However, the quad only shows the trail as far as Lower Pierce Point Ranch.
Best time to go: The trail is open and suitable for hiking year-round. Wildflowers are at their best in late winter and early spring. Rutting season for the tule elk runs from July through October. During this time, males are more aggressive and it is more important to maintain a safe distance from the elk.
To reach the trailhead, follow Sir Francis Drake Boulevard north along the west shore of Tomales Bay, passing through the small hamlet of Inverness. Just after entering the park, turn right onto Pierce Point Road and continue north to the Upper Pierce Point Ranch. Narrow Pierce Point Road passes by several working dairy ranches, so keep a lookout for cows! A small parking lot at the Historic Upper Pierce Point Ranch is the only facility at the trailhead. The paved road curves left and continues down a gully to the parking lot for McClures Beach, where restrooms are available. McClures Beach, reached via a short trail, is one of the most spectacular and isolated beaches in the Seashore, and makes an excellent side trip while you are in this area.
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: N38-11.344, W122-57.249. Elevation 300’.
The Tomales Point Trail itself leaves from the small parking lot and traverses around the buildings of Upper Pierce Point Ranch. Ownership of the ranch was transferred to the National Park Service in 1973, and it has been maintained as an example of what dairy farming was like in the era before the Seashore was created. It is definitely worth your time, either before or after the main hike, to spend a few minutes walking around the grounds of the ranch to get a feel for how isolated life was for the early dairy farmers who lived here over one hundred years ago.
Beyond the ranch, the trail gently climbs and arcs around a low hill to the left before descending into a small pass called Windy Gap. If the weather is clear, there are outstanding views of the nearby Pacific Ocean along this stretch. Steep, crumbling cliffs separate the hiker from the tantalizing pocket beaches that occasionally appear below the trail. Clear weather is far from guaranteed here, as Tomales Point is one of the foggiest locations in the Seashore. Coastal fog is often most prevalent in early summer, but can occur at any time of the year. A mid-winter visit offers the best chance for fog-free hiking, although winter also brings the bulk of the area’s annual rainfall. As with any hike, a thorough check of the weather forecast prior to setting out is essential. Note that the area’s trails can remain very muddy for several days after a rain storm.
The section of trail between Upper and Lower Pierce Point Ranches provides the best opportunity on the hike to observe the herd of tule elk that call this area home. The story of the tule elk is a fascinating example of how a unique species was saved from extinction. Once common throughout Point Reyes and other parts of California, the elk were believed extinct in the mid-Nineteenth Century when a small herd was discovered in the Central Valley. The herd was protected and eventually the population increased to the point that they could be reintroduced to Point Reyes. Starting from a small group of only 10 animals in 1978, the herd now numbers around 450 elk. In fact, the herd has grown so large that some animals have had to be relocated to other areas of the Seashore, and the Park Service has had to implement a birth control program for the elk! What this means for the hiker, of course, is that you are virtually certain to see elk – lots of elk – along this trail. With that in mind, it is important to emphasize that the elk should not be disturbed or approached too closely, especially during the rutting season from mid-summer to October. A camera with a good zoom or telephoto lens is worth bringing along if you would like to get good photos of the elk.
At Windy Gap, it is possible to see the Pacific Ocean to your left and the waters of Tomales Bay to your right. The trail then climbs again to regain the main ridge of the peninsula. After a short climb, a long ridgeline traverse leads to another brief descent to the site of Lower Pierce Point Ranch. The site is marked by a grove of cypresses that once surrounded the buildings of the ranch. Today, all of the buildings are gone, and only the trees remain. Note that this small grove of trees is just about the only shady location along the entire trail.
From the ranch site, the trail climbs briefly again to regain the ridgeline, then continues on to a cliffside viewpoint overlooking tiny Bird Rock just offshore. Here, the maintained portion of the trail ends. To continue on to the very tip of the peninsula at Tomales Bluff, follow any of the numerous use trails that twist and wind through the waist-high coastal scrub brush for another ¾ mile. Although the narrow paths and sandy soil make for slow, tedious hiking, you will eventually reach the bluff itself. Here, a very steep, eroded path drops down to a small ledge directly over the ocean. Views are spectacular, as you are surrounded on three sides by water and the point is popular with the local cormorants and pelicans. Note that the last section of trail is not suitable for small children, and adults should exercise extreme caution due to the unstable nature of the soil here.
On a clear day, the small community of Dillon Beach can be observed less than two miles across Tomales Bay to the northeast. For this reason, cell phone coverage is surprisingly good in this otherwise very isolated location. While Tomales Bluff is a spectacular and very rewarding destination, realize that it is only the halfway mark of this hike. After taking in the scenery and enjoying a well-deserved rest, it is necessary to turn around and make your way back the remaining 4.7 miles to Upper Pierce Point Ranch and your car. Be sure to allow plenty of time to reach the trailhead before dark, especially in the winter.
- The Tomales Point Trailhead at Upper Pierce Point Ranch has ample parking, but no other facilities. Restrooms are available at the McClures Beach Parking Area just down the road.
- Tomales Point Trail is open to hikers and equestrians. Mountain bikes are not allowed.
- The trail is day-use only. Wood fires and overnight camping are not allowed.
- This hike is generally suitable for small children. Carefully consider the distance for the entire hike and your children’s abilities in deciding whether to bring them along. Also, the area at Tomales Point is not recommended for small children due to steep drop-offs and unstable terrain.
Also in the Area
Point Reyes has an incredible variety of trails, and you’ll want to consult a guidebook or other resource for other hiking opportunities. The Tomales Point Trail does not connect with the main network of trails to the south. However, the short hike down to McClures Beach is just down the road from Upper Pierce Point Ranch and is highly recommended as a short side trip.
Although there are no traditional car-camping opportunities in Point Reyes National Seashore, camping is available in Samuel P. Taylor State Park, east of the Seashore on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard.
The official website for Point Reyes National Seashore is the best resource for current information about conditions in the park, and should be consulted prior to a visit.
My go-to guidebook for Point Reyes is Jessica Lage’s Point Reyes: The Complete Guide to the National Seashore & Surrounding Area